I have seen the freest and best educated of men in circumstances the happiest to be found in the world; yet it seemed to me that a cloud habitually hung on their brow, and they seemed serious and almost sad even in their pleasures because they never stop thinking of the good things they have not got. —Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835
Buddhism is about getting rid of desire, right? But then, wouldn’t an inclination to get rid of desire itself be a desire? And there does seem to be an emphasis in the scriptures on applying effort to develop moral conduct rather than just following instinctual urges, to meditating rather than not meditating, and to awakening rather than remaining confused and reactive. Seeking spiritual transformation is desire, too, isn’t it?
To unravel this paradox, it helps to understand that the English word desire is a translation for either of two Pali words: tanha or chanda. These Pali words refer to different experiences. Tanha literally means “thirst.” Tanha is a reflex, an instinct—the urge to grab and consume. Chanda has a broader meaning; I prefer “motivation.” Chanda can refer to sense-appetites but also to the interest in Dhamma. It is the experience of focusing one’s intent in a certain direction. The clear difference between chanda and tanha is that chanda is not a reflex, not an instinct and not a compulsion; it is a choice. And the main theme of Dhamma practice is to make the choices that undercut the power of instinct and compulsion. That’s what it means to be free, to wake up.
In the process of practice, motivation has to be sustained through a range of skills, techniques and strategies (even “hanging loose” for a while to lessen the compulsiveness of willpower) until the compulsions to gain and hold on are quelled. So the overriding motivation is to let go of, or to renounce, tanha (thirst). When we’ve cultivated the supports that make letting go possible, there’s no further need for chanda (motivation), and the mind can come to rest.
Naturally, this isn’t that easy. And to make matters worse, the words renounce and renunciation usually send chills down people’s spines, even though renunciation, along with kindness and compassion, is one of the three wholesome inclinations that the Buddha developed for his own awakening. You might ask, what’s wrong with quenching my thirsts for wholesome things—for beautiful music, sunshine, my true love? Maybe for you, listening to Mozart is a guaranteed high; a sunny day on the beach is really a lot of fun; and you have a strong and trusting relationship with your partner—your life feels fulfilled. But what happens if you lose your hearing, or the sun doesn’t shine, or your partner dies? And think again: what would it be like if you lost your job and couldn’t pay the rent or afford to run your car? Is there a guarantee that that won’t happen?
The truth is we feel good part of the time because we give inadequate attention to what life entails, or to how fulfilling in the long run our happy hours and place in the sun really are. The Buddha saw that, too. The desire that grabs and consumes can never provide us with enough of the feel-good factor, or for long enough; and when we don’t know how to switch off the program, we’ll always want more. When the millionaire Rockefeller was asked, “How much money is enough?” his reply was, “Just a little more.” So there’s an ongoing restlessness and insecurity under the surface of all the highs that wealth and fame can bring.
Even though such self-interested desire may not completely fulfill us or may lead to suffering, it’s difficult to come out of the trance of tanha. So the Buddha’s strategy is to appeal to our self-interest in a different way. What is really going to make us feel good? Where does our security truly lie? The Buddha poses those questions in terms of peace of mind. His advice is first to find peace of mind through skillful action, or “bright kamma.” Working from the premise of doing unto others as we’d like them to do unto us increases cooperation and goodwill and leads to our own happiness and security. Acting skillfully with wise reflection and kindness makes our mind feel bright. Inner well-being comes from being honest and sensitive and from curtailing self-interest. We live free from regrets and feel larger and more fluent than “little me.” When we see things in the light of bright kamma, we don’t want to live addicted to creature comforts. We don’t want the kind of security that puts us in conflict with our neighbors or leaves us to foot the bill for security guards, weapons and armies. We begin to question our thirsts.
Once we see these benefits of skillful external action, the Buddha then advises “internal action” through meditation, or more broadly, the cultivation of the mind. Mind in the Buddhist sense means more than the intellect or rationality; it also encompasses what we mean in English by heart, spirit, sensitivity or awareness. This is the core of what we feel ourselves to be, so when we cultivate the mind, we get straight to the point, and the value of acting on our instinctual urges declines. In fact, it becomes a second-rate substitute for the more direct approach of gladdening, brightening, easing and releasing the mind through cultivation, where we find a more reliable source of happiness.
Consider the rapture and bliss of deep meditative states, or the mind-states of all-pervading benevolence, compassion, appreciative joy and serenity to which a cultivator may gain access. Above all, a mind that is agile, alert, empathic and made deep by contemplative work is a joy in itself and a blessing to others.
So the overall Dhamma prescription is to get free from desire through actually fulfilling it. This means first getting fulfillment through living in a balanced and skillful way, then through deepening the mind with meditation. In terms of meditation, what is known as concentration (samadhi) has three fulfilling aspects: clarity through an undivided and sensitive attention, happiness through the qualities of uplift and ease, and peace through the stillness of one-pointedness. Things don’t get better than this. And from this basis, the mind is able to sense that the pulls and flares of sense desire are actually disagreeably rough. In fact, even the hankering to hang on to the state of concentration adds a tightness and pressure to the experience. So there is the arising of insight-wisdom. With insight, those programs of the mind that equate fulfillment with flushes of feeling, or security with holding on, can be seen as a stressful waste of energy.
This insight undermines the “more is better” program, and its transformative effect feeds back into both our daily life and to the well-being of the world as a whole. That’s a pretty good theme to be motivated by. And from this basis of confidence in letting go, the mind can move out of the trance of tanha, and even away from the need for further motivation, chanda. This is because the more that this insightful abiding is developed, the more we trust the inner weightlessness that it reveals. In the same way that perfect balance is detectable by the absence of pressures, constriction and leaning, so the fruition of insight is just this “unsupported” peace and steadiness. Further motivation would just upset the balance. In a delightful paradox, this mind is then secure just because it is not leaning on some idea, feeling, mood, self-image or strategy. It is fulfilled in the security that there is nothing else to get and gain. It is simply free from all bonds.
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